Photo by greg dupree

Photo by greg dupree

The Good Doctor

A benediction for that week 10 years ago

Story by Richard Murff


[Author’s Note: This is a true account. For his own reasons, the Good Doctor didn’t want his named used, and that must be honored. So, to be fair, all proper names were scrapped.]

The music stopped and the call came for everyone to leave ahead of the grey-green clouds churning the brown sky. This was the big one, the one that would finally take out that weird, accidental colony they called home – but the Godmother had heard it all before. The Godson – one of 36 Godchildren – came to fetch her up. In her 80s, she was still a tall, magnificent woman. If her time was coming, and she knew that it was, it wasn’t going to be from a hurricane.

“No. I can’t leave.”

She would die in New Orleans and be buried next to her husband in the family crypt. The Godson pointed out that it would be undignified for her to be carried out over his shoulder to his car – or words to that effect. And so she went with him.

On the lower ground, the Brother and the Sister – about the same age – heard the warning as well. For most of his 80-odd years in the Tremé, the Brother had been had been a round and fleshy man, like a lot of round, fleshy men, a diabetic in the bargain. This was just another hurricane and they came and went and did what they did. They’d be taken care of by the neighbors – and good neighbors are like that. They wouldn’t leave; where would they go? This was their home. This too shall pass.

Across the city the vast, lost tribe, the ones they called the “New Orleans crazies” where moving too, under the murky sky and the sirens towards the only secure port in the stormy sea of their disordered lives – the hospital called Big Charity. If they could get there they’d be safe because it had always been so. The morning after the music stopped, the tribe found the hospital at the center of the shallow lake, rising upward like some art-deco castle in a brackish moat, accessible only by the eight-ton army trucks and airboats. So there they waited.

The Good Doctor was at hospital when storm breached the levies. Most of the patients had been evacuated ahead of the storm, but 250 or so remained. For five days, without power, the Good Doctors and Good Nurses tended the sick and waited for evacuation. In the psychiatric ward, they tried to keep the medication for the 100 or so patients consistent – but braced themselves for Bedlam. It never happened. The psych patients waited patiently, even amiably, in the lobby of Big Charity for the Alabama National Guard to come in and take them away.

The Cranky Novelist, the philosopher of our postmodern age, called it the Theory of Hurricanes: This strange observation that man feels happier and more focused in a hurricane, amid the raging chaos of disaster, than on any given Wednesday.

It was there, during the evacuation of Big Charity, that the Alabama Capitan recognized the Good Doctor from a lecture he’d given months before. They talked and the Alabama Captain asked if the Good Doctor was ready to be a Federal evacuee.

“No, I can’t leave.”

The Alabama Captain smiled and asked, “Then why don’t you ride with us?” So the Doctor went out with the National Guard to search for the sick and the dying stranded in places the Captain didn’t know. Years later, the Doctor would tell the Writer from Memphis that when people are dying, the last man-made things they recall are their names. The name is the first thing we identify about ourselves, and under that file all personal identifiers are written.

But before they die, however, they must fight to live. So from across the bridge an advance guard from the submerged inner city had come into the Doctor’s abandoned neighborhood seeking shelter. They sledgehammered the front doors, and there had been some looting in the outer neighborhoods of the high ground. When the army trucks rolled to a stop in front of the Doctor’s house, his door too, was smashed. Inside, he noticed that there had been a card game at the dining room table and a bottle of whiskey was still there, someone had cooked in the kitchen, but nothing – nothing – had been stolen: not the television, not the wife’s jewelry. Some stolen goods were being stored in his house: stuffed animals and dolls for the terrified children, still wrapped and new, set high on shelves and mantles in case the waters rose again.

With the sun setting in the surreal brown sky, the Captain said it was time to go. So the Doctor left the place, his home, to the needs and whims of the dislocated. The next morning he was given a Humvee, No. 13, to drive, and they went to the low ground that was accessible by the Zodiacs: inflatable boats with outboard motors that are fast and have little draft. The team searched for the stranded, gathered a few patients and took them by boat to the ramp of I-10. There they would wait on the empty highway for the Black Hawks to come down and lift them roaring away to Louis Armstrong Airport. From there, even the Good Doctor had no idea where they went. To safety, he supposed.

The City was not safe. The Cranky Novelist’s Theory of Hurricanes extends to the wars we wage on each other as well. As the Zodiac cruised the shallow waters of the neighborhood, shots came – ricocheting off the cracked brickwork overhead. “Into the bilge!” barked the Captain. The Doctor had no idea an inflatable boat could have a bilge.

In the afternoons, the team would return to the hospital where other doctors and nurses and Louisiana National Guard and the 82nd Airborne and the Naval Seabees were helping to clean up Big Charity. And every morning they went back into the Tremé and surrounding areas – searching.

The Good Doctor had been with the National Guard for four days, or was it five? Yes, it had been five days since Big Charity had been evacuated and 10 since the levees failed when they came upon the wooden house with the water lapping gently against the porch. On it sat a little dog, tied to the railing looking suspiciously at the water.

On the porch lay the Brother and the Sister in a paired state of delirium. The Brother’s once round form now hung in great sagging folds of flesh on his emaciated frame, waxy and ashen. The Sister stood watch over Brother and Pup. The food had long run out but the National Guard had been dropping bottles of water from the air across the flooded city. They were still alive because Neighbors went on regular sorties to fish the bottles out of the water to collect and distribute them.

So the Brother and the Sister and the Stranded Neighbors may have been wasting away, but like the city, they were not dead. They knew that the waters would recede and the chopping of the rotor blades of the Black Hawks overhead would cease, the gunshots at night would slacken, and somehow, the music would start again. It was the music, or at least the promise of the sad, joyful, mad sounds that would once again move the feet that kept them going on despite the dehydration, the hunger and the and the manic grip of delirium.

That morning, though, the only music the Brother and the Sister heard was the sound of a Zodiac outboard. The Alabama Captain and the Doctor mounted the waterlogged porch and told the Brother and Sister they were going to safety.

“No.” they said, tired, exhausted. “We can’t leave.”

To make conversation, to keep the pair talking, awake, focused, the Good Doctor asked their names. Neither could remember what they had been called. That too had gone like all the other things the mind jettisons in the end. Information the fading brain no longer has the energy to hold onto.

“Why can’t you leave?”

“We’ll never come back,” said the Sister, dehydrated, dying, but more lucid that the Brother, whom the Good Doctor suspected was in septic shock. Their names were gone, but not where they lived. They belonged in a neighborhood whose name they couldn’t recall – only that it was home and therefore where they belonged. Flooded and miserable, yes, but home still, and one day the music would sound again because it always had.

But the Good Doctor and the Guard had a job to do. They took the Brother and the Sister – and the dog – through the streets by Zodiac. There were no shots overhead that day. To the ramp of I-10 they took the patients and the Black Hawks rose in the clearing sky to take them to the last, best chance at survival.

The Brother and Sister did not return.

The Godmother did. Wracked with cancer from her hospital bed in New Iberia she was determined to make it back to New Orleans for her anniversary to be with her husband – who had long ago given his name to the Writer from Memphis. She managed to get herself back home, incidentally, by dying and being interred in the family crypt above her husband.

The streets were dewatered, the Alabama Guard was recalled, and the Black Hawks thumped away for good. The Good Doctor returned to his house, which had remained opened, lived in, but not robbed. He had work to do – but he wasn’t alone.

It wasn’t up to the Brother or the Sister or the Godmother to rebuild the city they couldn’t bear to leave – but to tell ones that filtered back that this place was worth saving, worth loving in a way that doesn’t always make sense. What they knew was that it has always been the particular genius of their neighbors to make music out of hurricanes.

And the music is good.